THE BLOG
07/29/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2016

Scheduling: How Employers Throw Working Women Under The Bus

Apparently the sale of sexy women's underwear is so volatile that, until recently, workers at Victoria's Secret were required to call in every morning to find out if they had a shift that day. Whether or not they would be needed, they had to be available just in case underwire bras or negligees were in unexpectedly high demand.

Like many issues affecting low-wage workers, women bear the brunt of bad policies.

The workers I interviewed in writing my book, Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over, described in vivid and painful detail how hard it was to complete their degree, take care of children or elderly parents, and earn money they desperately needed -- not to mention the wear and tear on their bodies from constantly-changing sleep patterns and the impact on their ability to have a private life -- when they didn't know when they might have to work, when they might have to stay late or start early, or when they might lose a shift altogether. Despite giving their employers advance notice of when they were available for work and when they had a conflict, such as a class or family responsibility, these women continued to get shifts that disrupted their other commitments. The only options they had were to skip class, be absent from family obligations, or lose their job.

Women know the harm the erratic nature of their work schedules can wreak on home life or earning power. Ronda Jama, an airport wheelchair agent who lives in Minneapolis, describes how her company's recently introduced on-call policy "has cut our hours and made life incredibly difficult for families like mine. When we don't know until the day of whether we will work, it throws our families into chaos." Another Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport worker worries about canceled shifts because of lost income -- the need to be on-call makes it impossible to get a second job. "I go home every day and think, what am I going to do if there's no work tomorrow?" says Suado Gabow. "I just want to work."

Jama and Gabow's stories are becoming more and more typical, with the old-style 40-hour workweek quickly disappearing. Because of lack of bargaining power in a weak economy, employees find themselves at the mercy of companies that have adopted a just-in-time system, meaning they keep a pool of workers on call subject to the demands of management. These workers, treated like car parts in a Toyota factory, get no fixed hours and must be available when the boss needs them. If summoned, the on-call workers have to drop everything and rush to work, affecting child care arrangements, or conversely their shift gets canceled at the last minute, undermining their desperate efforts to stay above water financially. For many of these workers, the coupling of too few paying work hours with too much volatility creates chaos in their lives and adds to the constant stress of being a low-wage worker. It would be tough for anyone, but devastating for a low-wage mother.

In the retail industry, where this practice has become increasingly prevalent, managers have implemented call-in shifts that allow them to adjust workers' hours to the number of customers they expect. That means for workers that they have to call in at the beginning of the day to find out if they have work or will go another day without pay. For the company, it means that it can pocket the savings and transfer the risk of a slow day to the staff. Since few of these workers can count on a full week's wages, they need a second job to survive, but combining a second job with one with unpredictable hours is nearly impossible. So the call-in system gives employers another perverse advantage -- it makes it hard for the staff to protest with their feet and find another job.

With set opening and closing hours and fairly predictable staffing needs, employers could provide some stability if they wanted to. Some do -- witness Victoria's Secret. But even with the harm to worker morale and productivity, not to mention greater turnover, the business culture is moving ever more in the direction of autocratic management and unpredictable schedules. It would be nice to think that companies would follow Victoria's Secret precedent, but in lieu of waiting for that unlikely possibility, it is time for Minnesota, along with other states, to help give employees back some control over their lives.